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3 Medical Tests You Can Take at Home

Advice for using them and when you should be talking to your doctor

At-Home COVID-19 Test
Grace Cary/Getty Images

Using an at-home medical test may feel a little like playing doctor, but it shouldn’t. Even before the pandemic turned nose swabbing into an art form, plenty of Americans were buying direct-to-consumer tests to assess any number of health matters, from learning cholesterol and hormone levels to finding out whether they’re pregnant or have sleep apnea.

According to the 2022 National Poll on Healthy Aging, conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation in partnership with AARP, almost half of older adults surveyed have purchased at least one kind of at-home health test, and the majority — 82 percent — said they were open to doing so in the future. It’s easy to see why. 

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“These tests can often be more convenient than making a traditional health care appointment and can be done in the privacy of your home,” says Jeffrey Kullgren, M.D., director of the National Poll on Healthy Aging and vice chief for research and innovation in the Division of General Medicine at the University of Michigan. Plus, “advances in technology have made it possible to test for more conditions or risk factors at home.”

Convenience is nice, of course, and improved technology is key. But can at-home tests be trusted? The answer to that question can be found in the fine print inside the packaging that —let’s face it — no one likes to read.

“Consumers should make sure they know whether the test they are taking is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and how their health or genetic information might be shared,” says Indira Venkat, senior vice president of AARP Research.

Reading the package insert isn’t the only way to find out whether a particular test is regulated by the FDA. You can also ask your pharmacist, contact the manufacturer of the test or check the FDA’s online database of approved at-home tests. (COVID-19 tests that have been authorized by the FDA are listed here.)

Whatever method you choose, keep in mind: Even if you have a green light from the FDA, that doesn’t make it OK to bypass your health care provider.

“Discuss any at-home test with your doctor or health care provider” in advance, says Kullgren. “While there are times when an at-home test may be a good option, there are other times when an evaluation by a health care professional would be the quickest and most effective way to identify risks for future health conditions or the cause of a new symptom.”

Same goes for sharing the results of any at-home test. They “should be discussed with your provider to determine what, if any, additional tests or treatments may be needed,” Kullgren says.

The overwhelming majority of adults who responded to the poll agree with all of the above — in theory, but not necessarily in practice. Case in point: 90 percent of those who had used a cancer-related home test said they shared the results with their health care provider, and yet only a little more than half of those who’d used a home test for a non-COVID-19 infection — like, say, HIV or a urinary tract infection — shared the results with their doctor.

“Under no circumstances does an at-home medical test give the power or the responsibility to the patient to manage their own condition,” says Alberto Paniz-Mondolfi, M.D., associate professor of pathology, molecular and cell-based medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Keep reading for what you need to know about some of the commonly used at-home tests among adults ages 50 to 80.

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1. COVID-19

The most popular at-home test among those who responded to the Healthy Aging poll is the COVID-19 rapid antigen test, which can tell you in a matter of minutes if you have a coronavirus infection.

No surprise. Since they became available, COVID tests have become akin to a ticket for entry into large events, offices, family gatherings and travel destinations, in an effort to curb the spread of the virus. The U.S. Postal Service delivered about 350 million to mailboxes across the country last spring.

A few things to know about testing for COVID-19 at home: Research shows that when you take the test is important. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends testing for COVID-19 at the first sign of symptoms.

If you have no symptoms but were exposed to someone with COVID-19, you should wait at least five days after your exposure before swabbing your nose. If those results are negative, the CDC suggests testing again a day or two later to guard against false negatives.

If results are positive, talk to your doctor right away about treatment options to help prevent a severe infection, especially if you are 50 or older or have an underlying health condition.

2. Cancer

This is not a test you just grab off the pharmacy shelf. Among poll respondents who bought an at-home screening test for cancer (such as colon and prostate cancer), 67 percent did so at the recommendation of their primary care doctor. Even then, some may consider the stakes too big to take matters into their own hands. But that’s what makes the DIY cancer screenings so essential.

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“Access to cancer tests has led to earlier diagnoses, which leads to earlier interventions and a greater chance for better long-term outcomes,” says Joseph Petrosino, professor and chair of molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine.

On the other hand, “false negatives either resulting from test inaccuracy or utilization can lead to a false sense of security when severe disease is present. And false positives can lead to unnecessary stress and anxiety,” he adds. “For both reasons, it is especially important to discuss the use and interpretation of at-home cancer tests with your doctor.”

Screening for Colorectal Cancer at Home

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that adults start screening for colorectal cancer at age 45. There’s a menu of screening options, and three are at-home tests:

  • The guaiac-based fecal occult blood test (gFOBT) is used once a year to detect blood in the stool. At home, patients obtain a small amount of stool on a stick or brush and return the test kit to the doctor’s office or a lab where it is analyzed.
  • The fecal immunochemical test (FIT) uses antibodies to detect blood in the stool. It is also done once a year in the same way as a gFOBT.
  • The FIT-DNA test (also referred to as the stool DNA test) combines the FIT with a test that detects altered DNA in the stool. An entire bowel movement is sent to a lab and analyzed for altered DNA and for the presence of blood. It is done once every three years.

It’s important to talk to your doctor about which screening is best for you.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

3. DNA/Genetic

Not to be confused with clinical genetic tests — which are ordered by your doctor for a specific medical reason like, say, to help guide cancer treatment — at-home genetic tests help you learn more about your ancestry, your risk for developing certain conditions or your response to medications.

What they don’t do: determine whether you’ll get a particular disease that runs in your family. Not quite 1 in 5 adults polled (17 percent) said they’d bought an at-home DNA/genetic test, and many said they did so after hearing about the test from an advertisement or because family or friends recommended it. 

“Detecting genetic predispositions through at-home tests is an exciting advance in health care; however, test results should always be discussed with your doctor or genetic counselor as these results are predispositions and don’t necessarily mean that you’ll get the disease indicated,” says Petrosino.

Moreover, a study published in Genetics in Medicine suggests that up to 40 percent of at-home genetic tests provide incorrect readings.  “A medical professional will help ease anxieties and provide measured interventions for whatever results a genetic test returns,” he adds.

What about the flu?

When it comes to the flu, a speedy diagnosis is key. Research shows that taking an antiviral, like Tamiflu, at the first sign of the flu can reduce symptoms and shorten your bout of the illness by one day. But it needs to be taken within the first 48 hours to be most effective.

While there are currently no FDA-approved at-home tests for flu by itself, you can find FDA-authorized home tests that check for flu and other illness, like COVID-19. Most recently, the FDA authorized a nonprescription at-home test that can detect flu, RSV and COVID-19 with one single swab. The test requires that you mail your sample to a lab for analysis.

“The rapid advances being made in consumer access to diagnostic tests, including the ability to collect your sample at home for flu and RSV without a prescription, brings us one step closer to tests for these viruses that could be performed entirely at home,” Jeff Shuren, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, said in a statement.

More options for at-home flu testing could be here soon; and good news when they arrive: A recent study led by researchers at University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle found that testing for the flu at home can be as reliable as the tests used at a doctor’s office, making it possible to get a timely diagnosis without exposing others.